On September 29, friends and colleagues of deceased Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, launched his “brainchild” – a new, shiny D.C. think-tank named DAWN, or Democracy for the Arab World Now. Led by Sarah Leah Whitson, DAWN “seeks to highlight and celebrate democratic reforms in the Arab world, while also shining a light on human rights violations and arbitrary and abusive practices.”

“Abusive” is putting it lightly. Few can forget that the horror of Khashoggi’s murder. Killed and dismembered in 2018 inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey, his death sparked outrage around the world. But such outrage, and the gruesomeness of his murder, must not be used to sanitize Khashoggi’s ideology.

In reality, Khashoggi was an open supporter of violent, theocratic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. His public commentary included open support for designated terrorist organizations and unabashed anti-Semitism. Khashoggi appears to have reinvented himself as an exiled ‘human rights’ dissident only once he lost influence in Saudi Arabia after the rise of reformist Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and presumably trusting that his editors at the Washington Post would not bother to read the fascistic posts on his Twitter feed too closely. As even the Post itself reports, Khashoggi’s columns were “shaped” by a top official of the Qatari regime’s Qatar Foundation.

Khashoggi was not a crusading voice for a better world; he was a spin doctor for theocrats in Doha and Ankara, who met a terrible end.

As with Khashoggi, while DAWN’s declared objectives may sound admirable, it appears, on just the slightest of closer inspections, that its publications and choice of staff serve to continue the legacy of Khashoggi by defending extremists and justifying religious totalitarianism, all, once again, under the cover of promoting human rights and democratic ideals.

Among DAWN’s inaugural publications is a presentation of the extremist Saudi cleric, Salman Al-Odah, as an innocent reformist, persecuted by the Saudi government for mere political dissent. According to DAWN, the charges brought by a Saudi court against Al-Odah in 2018 are an attempt to punish his “peaceful speech advocating reforms.”

Al-Odah was first jailed in the 1990s after he called on his followers to engage in jihad in Afghanistan and Iraq. Al-Odah even served at one point as a mentor to Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. He claimed to have moderated while in jail. But in 2005, he again issued a call for jihad in Iraq. Since then, in 2012, he insisted that the Holocaust was exaggerated and turned into a “myth” and “a source for extortion.”

Al Odah on TV calling the Holocaust a “myth of tremendous proportions”

He has promoted various anti-Semitic theories, justified cyber-attacks on “un-Islamic” websites, and as recently as 2017 issued a fatwa prohibiting women from wearing trousers in front of others as, according to him, they show the size of women’s sexual organs, causing “sedition and excitement.”

Nonetheless, DAWN presents this Jew-hating, women-degrading, violence-supporting preacher of hate as a “popular scholar,” known for his “reformist” and “peaceful” views.

DAWN’s investigation into the alleged persecution of Al-Odah relied on “information, court memoranda, and other legal documents.” It may come as little surprise that this information – including “court memoranda, and other legal documents” – was provided by Al-Odah’s son, Abdullah Al-Odah’s, who, it turns out, is a DAWN researcher.

It is instructive to look at DAWN’s other officials. Who are the other leaders of tomorrow “pursuing [Khashoggi’s] dream of democracy and human rights in the Arab world?”

One board member is Asim Ghafoor. In filed corporation documents, DAWN is registered to his address. Presented as a leading attorney on “high-profile cases related to national security and terrorism,” Ghafoor in fact worked for and represented several prominent Al Qaeda charities subsequently designated by the U.S. government. He served, for example, as a spokesman for the Global Relief Foundation, which was designated by the US in 2002, with the federal government reporting it “has connections to, has provided support for, and has provided assistance to Usama Bin Ladin, the al Qaida Network, and other known terrorist groups.”

Ghafoor also represented the U.S. branch of the Saudi Al Haramain Foundation (AHF) charity, which was designated in 2004. An investigation run by the IRS, FBI and ICE found that the charity’s U.S. branch had “direct links” to bin Laden. AHF engaged in “money laundering offenses”, in which funds it claimed to use to purchase a prayer house in Missouri were in fact earmarked for jihadists in Chechnya. The Treasury Department reports that “funds that were donated to AHF with the intention of supporting Chechen refugees were diverted to support mujahedeen, as well as Chechen leaders affiliated with the al Qaida network.”


Other board members include several leading Islamist activists such as Nihad Awad, co-founder of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which federal prosecutors named as an unindicted coconspirator in a 2007 terror finance case. Before founding CAIR, Awad worked for the (now defunct) Islamic Association for Palestine, which fundraised for Hamas and published pamphlets warning about “America’s Greatest Enemy: THE JEW!” Awad himself had made regular anti-Semitic statements over the years.

Support for one of the world’s most infamous theocratic movements does seem to be a possible requirement for membership. DAWN’s other officials (described as non-resident fellows) include Nader Hashemi, who argues that Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood offer a bulwark against jihadists, and, perversely, that when “moderate forms of political Islam are crushed and denied a public voice, radical Islam thrives.”

Shahin’s colleague at DAWN, political science professor Khalid Al-Anani, offers similar ideas. He is apparently incapable of imagining a Middle East without Islamism, claiming that it would be similar to a “China without Han” and declaring it better to “move beyond this obvious fact.” Aside from it being illogical to compare a theocratic ideology to an ethnicity, more than 90% of China’s population is Han. According to Al-Anani’s analogy, not only would the near-totality of Middle Easterners be Islamists, but it would also be impossible for them to be anything else.

Another of DAWN’s non-resident fellows, Emad Shahin, fled Egypt shortly before being charged “along with several senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood with conspiring with foreign organizations to undermine national security.” He was later convicted in absentia of “conspiring with foreign armed groups, including Hamas and the Lebanese group Hezbollah to destabilize Egypt.”

DAWN even recently published an article by Amr Darrag, a former minister in the short-lived despotic Morsi regime, painting the Morsi regime as an honest, committed guardian of liberal democratic ideals, in contrast with the “instability” of Egypt’s current (equally authoritarian) government.

Although, according to DAWN’s Whitson, the organization hopes to expand its work eventually to all countries in the Middle East and North Africa. She states it will be focusing for the moment on Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt – as these are “governments with close ties to the United States and […] that is where we have the greatest responsibility.” It seems unlikely to be a coincidence that DAWN is just focusing on the greatest antagonists of the Qatari regime.

DAWN was only launched recently, but from its ideological alignment with violent radical movements in the Middle East, to its officials’ connections to Al Qaeda and Hamas networks, and its vision of democracy entwined with Islamism, it is patently clear that DAWN is yet another Islamist-support organization, determined to advance an illiberal, anti-democratic agenda, all somehow under the cover of liberal, democratic rhetoric.


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Martha Lee


Martha Lee is the research fellow of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum

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